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People, Places and Events - History is Your Friend in Genealogy Searches


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Type: Article
Prepared by: Celia Lewis
Word Count: 661 (approx.)
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TIP: Keep a file folder of maps, dates and places handy!

Were you like me in high school? I hated all those historical events, places, and dates that we were told to memorize. So, I would dutifully memorize them for an exam and then, promptly forget them! I never had a reason to use those dates, names, places, events after school, so they seem to have disappeared out of my memory.

Oh dear, I am building my family tree and am running into many challenges. For example, right now, I am researching my greatgrandfather's military service - there is a family story that he fought in the Spanish-American War - but I have no idea when the Spanish American War began, except that it was before 1900. It would obviously be very helpful to have those dates in a simple chart of dates/places/names of wars or skirmishes.

Here is another common problem in many countries: states, provinces and counties changed boundaries, changed names, or became official entities at specific dates and how can anyone possibly remember which or when! Is it important? Oh yes! For example, if a particular Canadian province wasn't formed until 1906, I cannot expect to find a government birth registration for a child born there in 1894. I will have to look elsewhere for that information. I have a family in England who have their birth, marriage, death registrations, plus census records showing the same town in two different counties at various times. I thought it was a silly error, until I found out that the county boundary changed several times. Maps of boundary changes are now my friend!

Over the years, I have learned to gather both specific and general maps of relevant areas and dates. This way, I will have more success finding my ancestors in the correct places at the times they may have lived there. And I understand what kinds of resources I might search for details of an ancestor living in that decade.

For example, I have a sheet detailing dates and places of major events relevant to my particular family history. These include all the dates, places of wars and skirmishes in the U.S., both World Wars, various ship-building centres in the UK, the Irish Famine years and Irish emigration, information on the Palatine emigrations, and so on. These are my personal history references to turn to when I check the date of immigration, and realize for example that a family came to the USA before Ellis Island was set up to process all immigrants. Therefore I will not be able to use that specific Ellis Island database, but will need to look in Crystal Garden or other sources for their immigration records.

There are many historical resources which can be very helpful in uncovering your family's particular history. Start by asking lots of questions: What was happening at that time, in that decade? Where exactly were they living? Is there a history written of that area? What area of the country was being sold or annexed? Where was the seat of government, and when was it established? Where were records kept in that year? Were there newspapers published in those places? Where did ships arrive, and from where? Are there passenger lists available, indexed, online?

By asking such questions, I searched and found the record of my grandmother Harriett G. and her 6 children including my dad, sailing to Canada from England on the ship "The Virginian" in November 1914. I have a photo of this ship as well as an image of the Nov 1914 passenger list in my family binder.

Details such as these make your ancestors' history come alive, and your tree much more intriguing to others in your family.

Retired from the fields of individual rehabilitation and family counselling, Celia is excited to offer quality information, resources, and services for beginners in Genealogy. Check out for articles, newsletters, booklets, forms, online links and more on RootsBasic: Genealogy for Beginners.

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